Then in the fifties it became fashionable to blame mom and dad. Father took blame for supporting mother's pathological influence, be it abuse or neglect, and sometimes for behaving poorly himself. He was given a pass, however, on neglect, didn't have to participate in family life because: (a) he worked, and (b) guys aren't supposed to talk about feelings or ask about them. Certainly not when they're tired at the end of the day.
Then in the sixties, seventies and eighties, family therapists caught on to the transgenerational system. We noted that pathological behavioral and belief patterns are passed down, consciously or not, from parents to children.
So we searched the transgenerational family tree, blamed grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-great grandparents, even uncles and aunts and distant cousins, way up to the top branches-- the ganztza mishpacha (Yiddish, sounds like fonts-ah- dish-puck-ah) -- the whole family. We blamed the family system for awhile then finally decreed: No one is to blame. It is the family system that is to blame, family dynamics, patterns that repeat, unchallenged, year after year after year.
At some point we came to realize that no family system is an island, and if we're going to blame anyone, anything, we might have to blame the entire universe; for even people and events in the news affect our thoughts and behavior, as do our teachers and co-workers, the people in the grocery store. So we added "search" to the ecosystem to find a systems diagnosis, and used that for system change.
But sometimes it is just so obvious. It's Mom. We really can blame her, although the tree, those teachers, the neighbors, might be culpable, too; and Dad could get best supporting actor. But Mom has a corner on emotional power, that power to make us feel happy, or to make us feel sad, and sometimes she knows it, can't help but wield it. And it hurts all the more because, rightly or not, we expect more from women. When our woman doesn't deliver, it is the unkindest cut of all.
We'll put aside our wide-angle lens when father does it, too. We stop looking for patterns when one parent or another is consistently hurtful, is negligent or abusive consistently throughout the "child's" life. We stop looking because the patient, no longer a child, is really, really sick and needs treatment, understanding and empathy, may be cutting or suicidal.
A narrative points to a story of disappointment, pain, insults and drama, a relationship that never healed properly, one that didn't turn out nice, not like parent-child relationships should. No fairy tale here.
The therapist sees cause and effect and doesn't like it. The patient has shopped, priced, and compared, knows that many, if not most people have mothers (fine, fathers, too) who are not insistent upon the child's independence, who care for them when they are sick, who praise, rather than criticize, who don't withhold love, don't slap. The adult patient is thinking that at some point a human being should stop, should shape up, should become someone who knows how to give. Parental.
In this process, while talking through the narrative, neither the doctor nor the patient wants to label anyone bad.We tiptoe around the word bad, play with deficient, unknowing, mentally ill, a product of his or her parents. Mama didn't know any better; she is an improvement upon her mama.
Mother's culpability only becomes an issue when reality steps up and delivers.A call from her, maybe, asking for money, or time. Maybe new information from a sibling or a cousin. Someone posts an old family video, or a picture. Facebook. Anything and everything can be a trigger. The patient is going along, doing fine, minding her own business, feeling fairly protected, when suddenly anxiety is off the charts, defenses shot to hell. Like a broken child, she voices it in therapy: I'm alone. I was used to it. But it is so clear, so painful, how she never loved anyone but herself. What does she want from my life? Why can't she just leave me alone? I'm alone either way.
That existential dilemma.
Those of us who have healthy parents have tucked inside healthy introjects, representations of the good mom, the good dad, home and goodness, an identity that gets us through tough times. When a parent has been grossly negligent, absent, deficient, or terrifying, the child has no positive introject, no soothing representation of family. When there's nothing inside to lean upon, that existential dilemma, loneliness, becomes a crisis. Save me, they say, silently.
Sometimes I think I see abandonment everywhere, in every relationship, or its dear cousin, narcissism, selfishness. None of us are perfect parents. We can't always be there for our children, and sometimes we are all about us. It's true. But we try to keep that to a minimum, try to be there for our kids, and we express our love, our undying love. True narcissists, and people who are sick, sometimes people with addictions, might not want to but they abandon their children. They are the only ones in the room, the only ones with feelings that matter, and their children miss out, suffer a slow emotional starvation.
In a good therapy we do look for the love, try to find what's below the surface, forgotten good vibes. We spend hours seeking love in the history, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and we may find splashes of it. Or not. Or the pickings are just so slim we might look at one another and sigh, agree to abandon the search.
When we do that, it's okay, it really is. A person can do very well without parents, can find others as mentors, can be loved, protected by someone else. We think we need parents to be secure, but we don't. So much more goes into being secure.
It's very hard to get to that place, to let go, emotionally, to stop hoping for what might never happen. When there is a cut off, miraculously, the world does not stop spinning. It even feels safer. It might be inevitable if a parent isn't amenable to therapy, or won't work on the relationship, maybe has no resources. Or family therapy didn't work. Most therapists don't bother trying to work with older parents. Instead, they become highly adept at engineering sturdier umbrellas for surviving adult children.
The triggers are what make the umbrella something to keep in the car because there seems to be some kind of direct neurological pathway between the Mother event in real time and cutting and thoughts of suicide. The cutting is to leech the pain or to send the therapist, the good mom, a message. Save me.
I bring this up because it begs an ecosystem solution. Because I don't want to do the saving, not by myself. We talked about this a little in How to Save a Life.
The modest proposal, a solution to the problem of judging mother is empathizing with son and daughter. Since they are unidentifiable, since we don't know who they are and there may be thousands of them, we must empathize with everyone in every social context. This may seem like an impossible solution, for so many of us simply haven't got the chip, but we know that empathy can be learned, like we all learn a new skill, like stopping at stop signs while driving. Those who don't stop at stop signs will be harder sells on empathy.
I'm thinking people should throw it into conversation, should ask one another, Do you think I'm an empathetic person? Responses are likely to be honest. It's a relief, honesty. Expect to feel defensive but good, for this is a teaching moment.
Empathy works like this in a therapeutic context:
1. Someone complains about Mother.
2. The good therapist only cares about that complaint and how it affects the individual. It is all about feeling this person's experience, the therapist feeling the patient's pain.
3. Questions apply; answers do not. We ask in order to better experience the pain of the patient.
4. We ask more. We want to know all about it. Empathy is not about giving answers or suggestions; it is all about questions.
When a person is triggered, distressed, it is safe to say that anyone can be therapeutic by staying with this person, this friend in need. And best is to let the friend go ahead and judge. There might be a few rules to keep in mind.
This is not the time to say,
Give the benefit of the doubt.Not therapeutic, and for a person who has been abandoned many, many times over, the benefit of the doubt is hollow, reasons shallow. And you're likely to hear:
There must have been a good reason for. . .
You might have done the same if you were in that situation.
No, I would not have done this, no matter the circumstances.With attitude.
This is not the time to say,
You have to let go of your anger. Forget about it.Or worse,
You should confront her. Let her know how you feel.Send the sheep to the wolf, why don't you.
This is not the time to say,
Forgiveness is divine.Forgiveness is a process, for some, a lifelong process.
This is certainly not the time to say,
What you should do is . . .What you should have done was . . .It is a good time to say,
Tell me, tell me about your anger.It is safe to believe that these feelings don't come out of nowhere.
You have a right to your feelings.
There is a proverb, maybe a mishna (Google it) that says,
Don't speak to a man when he is angry.The cutting, the suicidal behavior, this comes from a very angry, sad place.
Once the anger and sadness has lifted and healing is palpable, in therapy we talk about alternative narratives. We might rewrite the script, employ visual imagery, all kinds of cognitive behavioral interventions.
Wouldn't it have been great if you could have said. . .?
Why don't you put her in the chair and talk to her, tell her how you feel?
You can do that too, after the anger is gone. Timing is everything. Just be sure not to trigger your buddy again. Less said, seriously.
For it really is okay to judge someone, and it's more than okay, it is therapeutic to let another person judge. Even if it is the very same person who brought him into the world.
PS: If you judge someone's mother, you're taking a huge risk. I can say whatever I want about my mother, but you better well not. That's my mother you're talking about.